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Will OTT platforms see multiple self-regulatory bodies?

The tension among India’s burgeoning over-the-top (OTT) video streaming companies is palpable. It is not just the government, it’s also the Indian courts that are centring on video-on-demand content for tighter regulation. So far, OTT content was completely unregulated, that is, till the Centre notified on 25 February the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

Even as both homegrown and foreign streaming firms, such as ALT Balaji, Zee5, Disney+Hotstar, Netflix and Amazon, were grappling with the new rules spelt out by the government, the court, too, earlier this month, observed that the guidelines lack teeth with no mechanism for prosecution in case of violation of rules.

While some say it was just a passing reference by the Supreme Court, others note its significance. To recap: the Allahabad high court had denied pre-arrest bail to Aparna Purohit, head of India originals, at Amazon Prime Video, for investigation in the FIR filed against the web series Tandav shown on the platform.

When an appeal was filed in the Supreme Court challenging the rejection of pre-arrest bail, the SC observed at the initial hearing on 4 March that traditional film viewing has become obsolete.

People watching cinema on the internet has become common and its query was that this should be screened.

When the SC was informed about the new rules, it directed the solicitor general (SG) to place the regulations before it. These were tabled on 5 March and the SC orally observed: “These (OTT) rules don’t have any teeth. There is no provision for prosecution or fine. They are only just guidelines.” The SG agreed to produce a “better draft & quot; and the SC said once solicitor general submits that the government shall consider and take appropriate steps for regulation or legislation as may be found fit. The court also granted interim protection to the Amazon executive and issued a notice on her SLP.

For now, most OTT platforms aren’t worried about penalties, but about being controlled by bureaucrats through the inter-departmental committee that the Centre has provided for as the third layer of complaint redressal.

While the first two tiers put in place a system of self-regulation by the platform itself (in the form of a grievance redressal officer) and by the self-regulatory bodies of content publishers, the third calls for an oversight mechanism by the Centre.

The second tier entails a omg self-regulatory body headed by a retired Supreme Court or high court judge. The body could have a maximum of six members from the field of media, technology, broadcasting and entertainment, and have the power to warn or admonish an entity for code violation. It can direct OTTs to run apologies, re-classify content or modify descriptors.

However, if no resolution is reached the complaint could be escalated to an oversight body to be headed by a joint secretary level officer authorised to issue directions to block content. Of course, other than the usual concerns around creative freedom being curbed by bureaucrats, the other glitch is the nature of the oversight mechanism itself where a self-regulatory body headed by a retired judge could be overruled by an inter-departmental committee.

For now, the government has notified the rules and is looking to frame the charter—which is the way to administer the code. It is said to be closely examining charters of various self-regulatory bodies like Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), the advertising industry watch dog.

Parleys among OTT platforms are ongoing to arrive at a consensus for a self-regulatory body. Some platforms are suggesting forming a separate body under the Indian Broadcasting Foundation itself, which already has the successful Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) model before it. BCCC addresses complaints against non-news channels. Yet others fear such a measure may hamper creativity and edgy content that OTT platforms are known for and may start mirroring TV content, an idea unacceptable to most.

However, right now speedy action is required by platform owners to set up their self-regulatory body. In fact, since the new laws allow for more than one such body—and since most OTT players do not see eye to eye on most issues—it looks like the industry may see the emergence of several self-regulatory bodies for video-on-demand content.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Mint

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